A “High” Dose of Reality

altitude sickness

Altitude sickness UP ahead …

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a real and scary thing on Mount Kilimanjaro and other high altitude destinations.

AMS is basically the impact on the body when you cannot get enough oxygen at higher altitudes. AKA the air is “thinner” which really means it is less pressurized so while the amount of oxygen in the air is the same, the rate at which you take it in is much lower. Basically, I won’t be the only one who sounds like Darth Vader up there when trying to get a good breath. Finally!

The symptoms of altitude sickness can be mild: headache, no appetite, sick to your tummy, vomiting, feeling weak and tired, not sleeping well, and dizzy. With a list like that its easy to see why people say it feels like having a hangover. Imagine climbing a mountain feeling like you enjoyed too much red wine last night! Yick!

AMS can progress quickly into something very dangerous. Climbers can go from a simple mild headache to a confused state, inability to walk straight, blue lips or fingers, and very taxed, audible paper bag sounds when breathing. Scary terms like High-Altitude Cerebral Edema or HACE (fluid swells the brain) and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema HAPE (fluid fills up the lungs) are something climbers and guides need to be aware of and know how to identify and mitigate.

If the symptoms are mild you ideally remain at your current altitude and allow you body to adjust before proceeding higher OR if your symptoms are moderate you get your boots and butt down down the mountain double-time OR if your symptoms are severe you will be getting a lot of help getting off that mountain.

The question is: will your body adjust? Will you be able to continue? Or, is your climb to the roof of Africa over and you can just lay your weary, pounding head down on a comfy rock pillow and wait for you altitude-immune friends to summit and come down for you? Or worse yet, are you even aware you are suffering and can’t understand what that whip-whip-whip sound of the medic helicopter is? Scary stuff potentially.

Here is the rub … no one can predict who will get AMS. They have not found that one piece in our DNA that predisposes you to AMS. It has nothing to do with being male or female. It has nothing to do with being fit enough or a couch potato.  There are some rumours that it may be genetic but I haven’t seen too much that officially confirms that. Basically, let’s be honest, you don’t know if the altitude will get to you and by how much or how long … until you get UP there!

There are some suggested precautions we can take though, and we are:

  • sleeping at a higher altitude than you normally do a day or two before you start ascending on a day-to-day basis (we are staying 2 nights in Arushu, Tanzania 1,400m before the climb which is higher than our usual 723m in Edmonton, AB or sad little 81m in Vancouver, BC)
  • climb high and sleep low whenever possible on the hike (we get to do this on Day 4 of 7 just before the Summit night)
  • take Ibuprofen every 6 hours to reduce the symptoms of headache (I know I will be taking Advil by an alarm every 6 hours)
  • take high altitude medication (example: Diamox)
  • avoid alcohol, eat plenty of carbohydrates, drink loads of water

In addition, we are travelling up that mountain with a very reputable hiking company, Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. They are experienced and they are trained! While the food and shelter and toilet (yes you read that right) they provide is awesome and will make our hike super enjoyable; it is the regular monitoring of our physical condition and quick reaction to any signs of AMS that will make our climb safe.

In addition to the above precautions, this climbing crew also has a little extra in our safety blanket! We have a paramedic, firefighter, nurse and a pharmacist in our group of adventurers! Not only are they all great company; they are wicked-smart!

Summit or not, we are all coming down that mountain on our own two boots alive and smiling (OK a slight grimace or two from blackened toe nails and screaming knee joints allowed). Hello! We have a safari to enjoy the next day!

Important note: any of the medical mumbo jumbo noted above is in “Brande speak”. This means it is how my brain has translated a bunch of medical info on the internet or guidebooks and reproduced it here for you in a way that I understand it. You may have guessed I am NOT one of the medical professionals climbing! 🙂 


PS only 52 Sleeps To Go

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